I wonder how many Americans remember 1960s philosopher Marshall McLuhan or his most famous words, “The medium is the message.” That’s the idea that every form of media —monk’s scribblings, movies, YouTube — is as important as the content of its communication.
But the Islamic State — the brutal Sunni movement that has shocked the world with its ascension in Iraq and Syria, brutal tactics and intention and bloody efforts to cleanse its “caliphate” of infidels — seems well acquainted with McLuhan’s message. ISIS, as its also known, fully grasps the potency of the internet, particularly YouTube, in sending its terrifying message to the world. (If you watched the video beheadings of two American and one British noncombatant just know that your single view gave them more credibility and power.)
“All that we have to do,” bin Laden observed in 2004, “is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east and raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note.”
ISIS wins round one. Even Barack Obama, who clearly hoped to disentangle (forgetting, for now, his drone attacks) the United States from webs like those bin Laden and ISIS have woven, has now succumbed to public outrage spawned — and promulgated — by the medium of pundits, uninformed online commenters and message that ISIS is uniquely awful and we must act now. It’s just the latest bogey to have been cast as the existentially evil and threatening entity or figure whose defeat will, at long last, make us safe. Einstein on insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
So on Sept. 10 a weary-looking president announced a prolonged bombing campaign, along with attempts to build a coalition to wage a long fight to “degrade” and “destroy” the group while insisting that there would be no major ground operation. Six days later, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was talking about — surprise! — a ground campaign.
Is ISIS dangerous? At present, not to the United States, according to official counterterrorism and intelligence estimates. Might it become a threat if allowed to thrive? Possibly, but not imminently. And while disillusioned or delusional Westerners, including Americans, have joined ISIS, there is no evidence of “sleeper cells” or terrorists sneaking across U.S. borders. And no, there have not been any child beheadings; don’t believe everything you read. Coordinated action is perhaps warranted, but not at the point of a terrorist’s knife on YouTube; there is time.
The usual bombers, reflexive hawks like Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, have gotten their wish. Gen. Colin Powell says this isn’t America’s fight, but no one’s listening or considering his sensible “Powell Doctrine,” which demands an achievable goal — Obama’s is vague, at best — a plausible exit strategy — there is none — and a clear-eyed analysis of the likely consequences of action vs. inaction.
Some informed pundits, libertarian-type conservatives and liberals have called for Obama to submit this nebulous new war for Congressional approval. In our dreams. Parties at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue love the system just as it is: the president, no matter which party, gets to do as he pleases and nobody in Congress has to take a stand, which could damage their all-important re-election and fund-raising campaigns. A despicable symptom of a failing, craven system that serves everyone except taxpayers — and too often, those who serve in the military.
ISIS poses a more immediate threat to U.S. allies in the Middle East, Turkey, Saudi Arabia — which of course finances Sunni extremism — Iraq and other states. Non-allies like Syria and Lebanon also face danger. But not one of has agreed to a vigorous role in the coalition to date. And why should they? The U.S. has trained them and scores of other allies around the world, from Australia to Japan, Germany to Saudi Arabia, to act as if American taxpayers will foot the bill for their defense.
I was in Australia at the end of 2013. A big issue was the problem of Muslim “boat people” arriving from places like Iran, Sri Lanka and India who often pass through Indonesia, which has caused heightened tensions between the two nations. I was startled at how often I heard or read Australians confidently asserting that if there is war with Indonesia, they needn’t worry because the U.S. will protect them.
Aussies — who love us Americans — spent about $893 per capita on defense in 2013, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute — compared to $2,141 for Americans. A sampling of U.S. allies: $1,594 for Saudi Arabia, $244 for Turkey, $558 for Germany and $28 for Pakistan. Sweet deal if you can get it.
That’s why American taxpayers foot the bill for a military budget (which does not even include things like homeland security, intelligence or costs for ongoing conflicts) that represents about 40 percent of global defense spending. In second place, China is estimated to spend anywhere from a quarter to a ninth as much.
It’s insane, but American military and political leaders use “defense” to exert control over allies. Whether this buys much loyalty, or we can afford to continue letting allies off the hook, is doubtful. Asking allies to take on more of the costs of their own defense isn’t isolationism; it’s realism.